Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Fundamentalist Take Over of America, Now Underway.

America: The Fundamentalist Invasion
By Philippe Boulet-Gercourt
Le Nouvel Observateur

Thursday 17 November 2005 edition

These reactionaries who judge in God's name.
They're in the White House, already control the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Supreme Court. Today, the ultras of the extreme religious right also want to stuff their own men into the whole judicial apparatus.

Are you a Minimalist? A Strict Constructionist? Or an Evolutionist then, a partisan of a "living Constitution?" If you find yourself scratching your head with perplexity, welcome to the club of 99.9% of Americans who understand none of these questions. If not, perhaps you were present at the annual Federalist Society dinner last Thursday in Washington. In which case, you will surely have heard Karl Rove's speech. After weeks of silence, all devoted to avoiding an indictment in "Plamegate," the White House guru chose this association to make a much-noted reappearance. The Federalist Society? A select and powerful club of jurists among whom a few leftists are numbered for appearances' sake, but which, in fact, finds itself at the heart of the most important conservative crusade of the Bush presidency: a complete takeover of the judicial system.

The choice of Karl Rove was no accident. He came to dinner with Leonard Leo, the association's vice president, who has just taken a seven month leave to help confirm conservatives to the Supreme Court. Leo is part of a group nicknamed "the four horsemen" that organizes a telephone conference every Monday with the White House. Karl Rove often participates in it. There, the latest news about the campaign to stuff the federal bench with reactionaries is exchanged. It's a longterm campaign, begun in the 1980s by Edwin Meese, Ronald Reagan's Attorney General and one of the "four horsemen."

Now, today, these men are close to achieving their objective: Republican appointees control ten of the thirteen federal courts, a number that should increase to 12 in 2008. As of today, according to the "National Law Journal," close to 85% of Appeals Court judges will have been chosen by Republicans. The jackpot is obviously the Supreme Court, where, after John Roberts's confirmation as Chief Justice, hard-line Republicans are about to obtain a solid majority with the nomination of Samuel Alito, an eminent member ... of the Federalist Society.

Why this obsession on the right? After all, the Republicans already control the Presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives and they've named six of the nine judges on the Supreme Court. To justify their relentlessness, the conservatives advance a convenient explanation which they've polished to a fine luster over the years. America is victim to "judicial imperialism" on the part of judges transformed into "robed legislators," as Rove repeated last Thursday. Bush, for his part, does not miss any opportunity to denounce those magistrates who "legislate from the bench" instead of "strictly" applying the Constitution, all the Constitution, nothing but the Constitution.

In its unrefined populist version, this criticism denounces unelected leftist judges who dare to contradict the vox populi. For example, the decision by the Ninth Court of Appeal to prohibit the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools because it contained the words "under God." This decision could have provoked a legal debate worthy of the name. Not only because these two words "under God" were added in 1954 - right in the middle of the McCarthyite hysteria - to counter Communism, but also because the Constitution explicitly interdicts "the establishment of a religion." The actual debate over this judgment - later invalidated - provoked a torrent of criticism, some even suggesting the Ninth Court of Appeals be castrated by limiting its authority to California only.

A second, more recent example: the courts' decision with regard to Terry Schiavo, the Florida women living in a vegetative state whose husband wanted to "unplug" her. The law was so clear that "when Terry Schiavo finally died March 31, the Appeals Courts had decided more than twenty times against the Schindlers [Terry's parents, who wanted to keep her alive]," writes Catherine Crier, author of a virulent book about the right's offensive against the courts. [1] "During this whole affair, the courts resisted the efforts of the Florida legislature, Congress, Governor Bush and President Bush to violate the Constitution." In other words: the conservative right respects the letter of the law ... except when judges' decisions go against what it demands or it decrees to be the desire of the majority.

More subtlely, the fundamentalists' theoretical justification is defended at the Supreme Court by Judge Scalia, Judge Thomas, and, if he is confirmed by the Senate, Judge Alito. Their philosophy: in its interpretation by judges, the Constitution must mean exactly what it meant at the moment of its ratification. No more, no less. At first blush, the idea of ridding this admirable text of all posthumous political interpretation can only seduce, and one understands why Bush placed his judicial offensive under the sign of "objectivity." But in reality, the rigidity of the fundamentalists is a decoy - or rather, a convenient fig leaf for these ultra-reactionaries. In their style, fundamentalists such as Scalia are models of intolerance. They reduce their critics to the ranks of "cretins" and their hatred for evolutionists - those who think that the Constitution is a living organ the interpretation of which must necessarily evolve over the centuries - is equal only to "Creationists'" hostility to Darwin. Their stict reading of the Constitution "finds a parallel in the literal interpretation of the Koran or the Bible," remarks Cass Sunstein, author of the best book on this radical crusade. [2] And the consequences of their philosophy are potentially terrifying.

In his book, Professor Sunstein imagines some of them: holding to the letter of the Constitution, states can prohibit the sale of contraceptives; key elements in the laws against pollution or work accidents would be unconstitutional; the federal government could discriminate on the basis of race or gender; the individual states in the union could establish official churches; the president could dispose of enlarged powers to detain persons suspected of terrorism or suspected of having helped them; significant dispositions of laws like the Clean Water or Endangered Species Acts, and maybe even civil rights, would no longer be within the purview of the Federal government; even the most modest laws controlling firearms would no longer be valid. Add to this list the right to abortion which, according to Scalia & Co., has no basis in the Constitution.

Fundamentally, this literal reading is as abusive as a myopic reading of sacred texts. One more example: Antonin Scalia - like Karl Rove last Thursday - has declared himself to be scandalized by a recent Supreme Court decision prohibiting the execution of convicts who were minors at the time they committed their crime. According to Scalia, the only real question is whether the execution of a minor was considered "cruel and unusual" - therefore prohibited - at the time when the Bill of Rights was ratified. The idea that judges should take into consideration the fact that such execution is today prohibited or fallen into disuse in practically all the states of the union or that the United States remains one of the only countries in the world to execute minors is, in his eyes, an error - worse, a heresy!

Another example: the separation of Church and State. The Constitution is unclear on this issue, as Judge Sandra O'Connor acknowledged when she exclaimed: "It's hard to draw the line!" Precisely, Scalia objects, "why should the Supreme Court purport to draw a line that is impossible to define if the Constitution doesn't demand it? Why not authorize religious manifestations in any public place?" In reality, the Constitution never purported to compete with the Ten Commandments. It's not a timeless law engraved in marble. A number of its formulations - like the prohibition on "cruel and unusual" punishments - are deliberately hazy, susceptible to interpretation by the following generations, and, moreover, it's this flexibility, this simplicity that provides its genius. During the lifetime of the Founding Fathers, Constitutional interpretational was already a rich and intense activity. In 1802, for example, Thomas Jefferson insisted on the fact that the Constitution established a "wall of separation between Churh and State ..."

The supposed objectivity of the fundamentalists and the ideologues of the right, in fact, covers up a much more sinister ambition. It's a question of imposing reforms that the majority of Americans don't want through the judiciary. Catherine Crier revisits recent polls and shows that two thirds of citizens do not want to see "Roe versus Wade" (the famous decision on abortion) annulled. On euthanasia, gun control, or stem cell research, Americans profess to equally moderate positions. Therefore, for the religious right, the only way to impose its views remains the judicial route. Hence its monomaniacal, obsessive relentlessness, up until now crowned with success.


Tuesday, November 15, 2005

What do you believe? or How do you practice faith?

One way is to address these questions is to ask what is the difference today between Christianity and the other Wisdom Traditions. One aspect alone jumps out. Christians alone tend to define themselves by WHAT they believe about their founder. “What do you believe about Jesus?” is a typical question among many today whenever the topic of faith or religion comes up. .

Right belief, or ortho-doxy (right teaching), the content of the teaching has become the criteria of faith. Before some Christians will ever engage in further conversation, this is the question they must ask. Either you believe this. . . . or (you are not saved, or, you are not one of us, etc).

In contrast, the other Wisdom traditions put the emphasis on moral behavior: Jews, Muslims, even Buddhists, etc. Yes, there is a monotheism, a belief in one God (or one main creator-God, Hindu) in the Abrahamic faiths, but the Koran, the Torah, and the gospel itself, are about behavior. Which can offer us an curious perspective about our Christian tradition.

When one reads the Gospel, Jesus is not about what you believe, but how you behave, the Beatitudes, the least of my brethren, the wounded one in the ditch, etc. Jesus’ essential message was to reform Judaism, to bring it more fully to the Love of God and Neighbor. The Kingdom was right here, in celebration, without sacrifice, without official priests. This was the Gospel of Good News. Jesus came to start a movement of renewal. Then the church came and started an institution based on who Jesus was, emphasizing the What-ness of our faith..

Organized religion took the much easier choice. Talk rather than walk. (Have you not noticed how your evangelical cousins are ready to judge you by what you believe, and even discontinue conversation when they find out you differ on one of their own core beliefs?)

The distinction is crucial. As soon as we put the emphasis on the what-ness of our beliefs, human ego and worrying mind get involved and will always judge my own vision, my own belief system, as superior to that of another. Which is the sad and tragic history of Christiandom.

There is no evidence that this happened much during the early centuries of Christianity, though certainly there was vigorous argument about who Jesus was. The influence of Greek philosophy was early evident in the prologue of the gospel of John.

A crucial question is how did the Christian community grow so fast that it was a substantial minority, perhaps even a slight majority of the Roman empire by the time of Constantine? The rate of growth from the tiny sect in Judea via Paul’s travels, is estimated demographically as about 25% per year. See how Christians love one another and how they care for the poor, the orphan and the widow. The early church did not grow by leaps and bounds by having distinct official creeds.

The first large turning point in the development of Christianity was the Nicene Creed coming out of the Council of Nicea. When bishops were given power over others as Roman officials is when active persecution of the Jews and those who believed differently began. The burning of the first synagogue. The destruction of the great library of antiquity at Alexandria. The use of religion for “power over” others began.

Notice something significant about the Nicene Creed. It skips the actual life of Jesus, and has nothing to say about love and compassion. Jesus was “born of the virgin, suffered, died and rose again.” Creeds were a response to debate, to signify who was an insider in Christian faith and who was not, that is, a boundary maker.

But no creed can be a full statement of faith, but only an ecclesiastical response to argument. This is why there is no mention of God being present already, no mention of the Kingdom or the teachings of Jesus. Creeds give us a very limited and dangerous doctrine of God.

I propose the Nicene Creed is the first great perversion of Jesus teaching in our Christian history.
The Creed made Ortho-doxy, or Right Teaching, the criteria of What is a Christian, not behavior Jesus summoned

The obsession with orthodoxy, or right belief, continues today among many, if not most Christians. It is a stealth idolatry and a distortion if not perversion, in my opinion, of what Jesus was about. It is the main reason for the many divisions we have in Christianity. It is not merely fundamentalism or literalism but a stealth idolatry of any concepts as representing Eternal Truths.

With literalism or orthodoxy we have right talk about Jesus, about teaching, singing, praying, preaching. Different denominations can talk endlessly about differences in their beliefs. With ortho-practice as our guide, we consider what behavior we are called to, how to walk the talk.

It was acceptable during the first centuries to argue about who Jesus was, until Constantine. After that definitive document, belief about Jesus was used to include or exclude many. The Nicene Creed was a political document used by the Emperor for political stability, and by the Roman Church for thousands of years for the same purpose.

It is also a document used by authority to justify the torture and murder of many, and to ignore the challenging renewal to which the vision of Jesus will continually summon us again in every age. For example, the organized churches could proclaim the Creeds for nineteen hundred years and ignore the human rights of slaves. Not to speak of other blindnesses.

Ortho-doxy is the great hidden or stealth idolatry of our time. It is used by fundamentalists and radical extremists in every faith to judge others as heathen, unworthy of respect and fair treatment. Jesus did not preach himself. He preached a gospel of compassion for the outsider and stranger. That is not found in our creeds. Organized religion came and preached Jesus.
For this reason, organized religion becomes too often a distortion of the gospel of Jesus and a slave to its own belief systems and traditions. Jesus’ teaching was not about right belief, but about changing our hearts. Mostly he did it by stories and example.

“What is a Christian?” defines content or talk. “Who is a Christian?” can rather define the behavior necessary to walk the way, how to follow the man from Galilee, the rabbi, the teacher of Wisdom.

“How do you practice your faith?” elicits a very different response than “What do you believe?”
Here is my charge. For any brand of Christianity to emphasize the content of belief over the practice of faith is a perversion of what Jesus was about. It is to make talk more important than walk.

My faith is a precious gift and I am called to love. For me to say that my Christ is the only way to God is arrogant. I can only say that the Wisdom of Jesus is the way for me. For me to claim that my faith path is superior to that of any another is not only prideful folly but also contrary to the message of Jesus.

I propose that the walk of all Wisdom traditions is similar: compassion, justice, and welcoming the stranger. Most all the native or indigenous religions of the earth practiced the same virtues. Celtic Spirituality is a Re-membering. ###

Paschal’s ministries and email address can be viewed at